In Queens, Are 2 Convention Centers Better Than One?

Two proposals create convention competition in Queens and raise questions about need.

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Reuters

Why stop at one convention center when you can have two? 

Even in the face of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to build a brand new center in Queens, the Borough President is going full steam ahead on her own plans to bring a massive meeting house.

In her recent State of the Borough speech, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall reiterated her commitment to a proposed convention center at Willets Point, near LaGuardia Airport. It has been planned as part of a broad area redevelopment effort, in the works since 2004.

“Let me be clear about the convention center at Willets Point,” said Marshall, to a crowd of more than 450 elected officials and community leaders at Queens College. “It is meant to complement the Javitz Convention Center. And now it can complement the convention center at Aqueduct.”

This new convention center in questions was proposed by Cuomo in his State of the State speech as another option – not to complement but to replace the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. He suggests building the new convention center the Aqueduct racetrack-casino in Jamaica, Queens, adjacent to the city’s other airport, John F. Kennedy International. The convention center would be 3.8 million square feet – four times the size of the Javits Center – and is tentatively named the New York International Convention and Exhibition Center, or NICE.

Nice.

As the New York Times notes, Cuomo has eyes on growing New York’s convention business, and freeing up valuable property in Manhattan.

Mr. Cuomo said the Javits center, which is in the middle of a $500 million renovation, no longer belongs in Manhattan, where it is too small to compete for the large trade shows now going to convention centers in Chicago, Orlando and Las Vegas.

Under Mr. Cuomo’s proposal, the state would forge a joint venture with the Genting Group, the Malaysian company that has invested $800 million in opening a gambling hall at Aqueduct. Genting, not the state, would finance a $4 billion convention center, with a hotel and expanded gambling space, while the government would contribute the land in Queens.

But will replacing one lackluster convention center with two brand new ones really gin up more business? Marshall is hoping so, playing the mid-size convention center card to the much higher capacity of NICE. The economics of the dual centers, though, may ultimately make Marshall’s Willets Point option the less favorable. In fact, the data seems to show that even one convention center may not be a good bet.

According to this article from the New York Daily News, convention centers nationwide have been struggling to attract the business they once did. And the market for conventions is as competitive as it is uncertain, according to Heywood Sanders, economics professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio.

“City after city builds and expands a convention center,” he said. “Yet they end up doing less business than they did 20 or 30 years ago.”

Sanders points to Pennsylvania and Chicago, which have seen attendance dip.

Visitors of McCormick Place in Chicago — the nation’s largest events hub that Cuomo is hoping to best — lost a million visitors from 2001 to 2010.

But Cuomo says at least his convention center should go forward, largely because it would be funded by private interests and would cost the state “bubkes.” He argues that the worst thing that could happen if the project failed would be that he city was left with an empty building. A 3.8-million square foot building.

The costs though, both to the economy and to the built environment, will likely be large, even if the center is financially successful. As this article from Next American City explains, such mega-projects are rarely the panaceas they’re sold as being.

And two panaceas are even less likely than one. If the city and state are going to go ahead with their plans, it seems highly likely that the future of Queens will only have one convention center, and even that might not be such a good deal.

Photo credit: Steve Marcus/Reuters

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.